Science Fiction and Romance seem on first sight to be pretty much incompatible genres: the first is based on supposedly “hard” science, based on facts and concerned with what is plausible, the second on supposedly “soft” emotions, based on feelings and concerned with reaching a Happily Ever After ending, no matter how unlikely. And, of course, the first is quintessentially male, the second quintessentially female. And if you think that latter statement is behind the times and that surely we’ve moved beyond that kind of moronic sexism, then think again. And check out some of the blatantly sexist stuff exploding all over the SFF fandom with depressing regularity, or just read up on Ann Aguirre’s own experiences as a female Science Fiction author.
Grimspace is Ann Aguirre’s first novel, and while SF and Romance occasionally can get in each other’s way (for reasons of conflicting genre conventions which have nothing whatsoever to do with genre), this is an example of them working together well. The emphasis lies clearly on the Science Fiction here – while Grimspace isn’t “hard” SF (I find myself unable to use that term other than in quotation marks) but more of the space operatic variety, it’s a solid story with solid world building that makes everything hang together nicely and appears sufficiently plausible (once you’ve swallowed the usual genre implausibilities like FTL drive, that is). As for the Romance elements, it’s actually not so much the relationship plot where those are felt most strongly but in the continued angsting of first person narrator Sirantha Jax over that relationship, her own character and her place in the greater scheme of things, and I can imagine that this is what most readers of “hard” Science Fiction will have most difficulties with, as they’re not likely to be used to this much self-exploration.
Which would be a pity, as Sirantha is a very interesting character that will go a long way through the rest of the series (and will never stop telling us about just how much she has changed). And she has sufficient reasons to be very angsty, because Ann Aguirre puts her through some really hard moral choices, and it’s one of the strength of this series that it never flinches away from those. This is indeed a very grim novel, not just for Romance but also for Space Opera and Ann Aguirre is definitely not someone to pull her punches. The moral dilemmas and the soul-searching however do not distract from the story, and Grimspace delivers a briskly moving tale with lots of action, to which the Romance elements add an unusual amount of emotional depth. I was not quite convinced by the ending, which seemed rather too naive in its (very USian) belief that everything will fix itself once it is turned into a scandal on the news. The progress of the series will put that ending somewhat into perspective, but later books continue to be plagued by a worldview that is rather too blatantly based on US-American values. But that’s really just a minor issue in what is overall a highly entertaining series.